Vetting naïve applicants

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Do they have the space when you have the time?

By Chris McKaskell, guest feature writer, London, Ont.

Having spent time with all manner of cabinet shop owners over the years, only one thing is certain: what makes an organization different from its competitors is its people.

With very few exceptions we all use the same sorts of machinery, suppliers, and materials to make our products, and we all team with human beings to help us perform our work. What differentiates us appears to come down to the people who make up our teams. So, consider this, if the biggest single difference between cabinet shops is the people working in them, it stands to reason our hiring practices, training and culture are really what set us apart.

A quick scan of industry want-ads illustrates what most shops look for. Simplified, the norm includes experience, training, and resilience, or an ability to handle fast paced change and the capacity to do well, working under deadline pressure. But what do these characteristics really look like and how can we select for them? In terms of resilience, we all know it takes years and several good crises to really get to know people — to see how they respond in dynamic, high-stress situations.

When it comes to job qualifications, nobody can agree on those qualifications’ value. Indeed, disagreements around what should be our most basic, nationally recognized certification, the Red Seal Cabinetmaker Certificate of Qualification, are embarrassingly common. I mean, really, we build cabinets — our cabinetmaker apprenticeship program should be robust and create the people we need, and we should all be able to come together to agree on what it should include. Hopefully, that consensus will come soon.

Chris McKaskell says: I am not an HR professional, neither do I make final hiring decisions for the organization where I work. I do have significant experience as an employer having, for many years, been a partner at a high-end, custom cabinet shop with about 13 skilled employees, but I’ve always focussed more on the craft of cabinetmaking
than on the business. Today I am the custom shop manager at a mid-sized cabinet firm big enough to be divided into several departments and small enough that my role requires me to be on the tools everyday.

The rarity of skilled people is also a big legacy issue: while the skilled trades are finally regaining credibility as a career choice, young people entering the job market have few mentors to draw on. I’ve encountered many shops with one or two highly experienced people (two decades or more), a bunch of new people with perhaps one year or two, but very few in the middle. Consequently, we face an impending crisis as the old guard prepares to retire. I fear the remaining workforce really won’t have enough experience, thus creating a gap. Now is the time to make proactive training a key component of your operation. But how to find the right people….

Understanding a prospective new-hire is really limited to the interview and probation process, so how we conduct our interviews and training in the first three months is enormously important. Reasoning that skills can be taught and acquired, and realizing we don’t currently have a reliable certification process, I think the current best practice, when it comes to hiring outcomes, must shift to a focus on the candidate’s character, aptitude and potential.

Most interviews I’ve had were conversational: managers asking a barrage of skill and knowledge-testing questions to try to gauge one’s knowledge and experience. Often there is a chance to visit with other team members to form a gut sense of how everyone might get along.

It’s fair today to expect more applicants that lack relevant experience, so the key is searching for attributes that support their ability to learn fundamental physical skills quickly. However, if they are to thrive in the industry, they must also have a dose of physical, spatial, and geometrical intelligence. I like to search for these attributes quickly by using a few simple tests. My favourite, the most basic one, has proved the best. It is simple, amusing, and somewhat surprising. This test involves handing the interviewee an unassembled cardboard shipping corner. Provided they do not know what it is, the object appears flat and unassuming and could be anything. I then ask them to assemble it.

The next few moments reveal a tremendous amount about a person’s character. Some people won’t even attempt the puzzle while people with strong wiring for spatial geometry and physical intelligence tend to figure the puzzle out relatively quickly. I am always intrigued by the ones who don’t get it during the interview but ask to take it home so they can keep trying, and, of these, it is always thrilling to get a call the next day from someone who figured it out on their own, on their own time, after they left the interview. Regardless, the path they choose speaks volumes about them and gives me valuable insights into how well an individual might fit into the team. Simple enough, but while perhaps only 10 percent of people have the physical/spatial/geometric intelligence to put the corner together without knowing beforehand what it is, I have also found it useful to continue the interview vigorously during their attempt.

As the candidate begins to settle into his or her work on the puzzle, there is a fun, awkward social moment when they subconsciously wonder if it’s okay to stop talking to me and focus on the puzzle instead. I like to let that feeling develop to see how they react before launching into a series of questions. The social part is important. How many workers have you noticed who stop working instantly for the simplest interruption — but it’s crucial to determine whether this is due a social expectation of politeness or an inability to talk and work. Courtesy is, of course, essential in the workplace, but we can shift the social norms to fit a more productive culture on the shop floor by recognizing when a task is more important. Likewise, someone who can’t work while they talk really has no place on a cabinet shop floor.

So, here’s my advice, begin looking at your candidates’ potential rather than their accomplishments because, with fewer and fewer qualified tradespeople available, the creation of the next generation of proficient cabinetmakers is up to us to create.